Monday, July 24, 2017


Various Artists
Exotic ésotérique Vol.2

Various Artists
Jungle Judgin' / Holypalms remix compilation

The Wire, June 2017

by Simon Reynolds

A visually pleasing palindrome, “Artetetra” also secretes within itself a clue to the concerns of the Italian label of the same name.  “Tetra” means “four” and the Fourth World, Jon Hassell’s Eighties term for audio hybrids of West and non-West, is the placeless place out of which emanate Artetetra musics.  The label goes one better at its bandcamp page, claiming citizenship of Quinto Mondo: the Fifth World. That slight escalation points to the internet’s impact on a new generation of music makers whose creative headspace is utterly deterritorialised, omnivorous audio-tourists able to scavenge influences galore without ever leaving their desks. Indeed INTERNET HOLIDAYS™ is the sly title of a joint project by Artetetra artists Hybrid Palms and Cheap Galapagos.

The “Mondo” in Quinto Mondo further winks at the Italy-spawned Sixties genre of exploitation films: documentaries whose voyeuristic enjoyment at ethnic curiosities paralleled the exotica boom of faux-Polynesian easy listening and tiki bars.   Blithely unbothered by issues like exploitation and misappropriation, not just refusing to fret about the danger of ethno-kitsch but actively enjoying the ersatz and fictitious, Artetetra inhabit a free-for-all world where time and space, history and geography, get guiltlessly jumbled up.

Officially based out of their Adriatic coastal hometown Potenza Picena but operating mostly from Bologna these days, Artetetra is a little over two years old. During that time it’s released eleven single-artist albums and two compilations: Exotic ésotérique Vol.1, which launched the label, and the polemically-themed collection My Goddess has a Crazy Bush, a protest against pubic depilation and a celebration of “the natural look”.  Now come two more compilations: Exotic ésotérique Vol.2, and Jungle Judgin', on which the Artetetra roster rework tracks from labelmate Holypalms’s 2016 album Jungle Judge.

A Moscow-based producer whose music is a frenetic, glittering meshwork of West African and South Asian rhythms, Holypalms is a typical Artetetra outernationalist. Other names seem like they might be alter-egos for the enigmatic duo behind the label. And still others come with colourful back stories that may have you wondering if they’re fabulations.  Kink Gong’s Erhai Floating Sound, for instance -  the label’s stand-out release so far – was supposedly recorded on the Chinese lake Erhai from a fishing boat connected by underwater cables to four other boats each carrying a speaker. “Pull the other one!” was my instant thought, but it seems that Kink Gong really is the alias of independent ethnomusicologist  Laurent Jeanneau,  who roams the Far East archiving vanishing folk musics and then electronically modulates the source sounds (voices, gongs, Chinese mouth organs, etc)  into creations like Floating Sound.

Kink Gong is oddly absent from Exotic ésotérique Vol.2 (although he does contribute one of the more low-key moments on the otherwise rambunctiously energetic and entertaining Holypalms remix album).  Indeed Vol. 2 is as much a foretaste of signings and releases to come as it is a showcase of output to date, featuring unfamiliar names like The Mauskovic Dance Band and Los Siquicos Litoraleños.  Described as a wunderkammer, a sonic cabinet of curiosities, and blended  seamlessly in the mix-tape style,  the compilation is far more assured and intriguing than its predecessor  (now regarded as a juvenile stumble by the label). The first side “Exotic” is – as the title suggests – blatantly worldy in vibe,  a beguiling safari through ethnological forgeries and far-fetched hybrids.  Afropop guitars are fed through postpunk flange; Wally Badarou synths quiver and shimmy; gnarly fuzzed acid-guitar rears up against a skyline of minarets; Hassell trumpet direct from Possible Worlds or “Houses In Motion” woozes like smog draping itself over a tropical megacity.  Now and then things verge on full-of-Eastern-promise cheese:  BICIKL’s “Penga” features belly-dance percussion, gong-crashes, scimitar-flashing Arabian guitar. But mostly the cosmopolitanism is scrambled, the sonic cartography suggestive of magic-realist extensions to the map rather than actual existing countries.  Sometimes the music suggest off-land strangeness: Los Siquicos Litoraleños’s  “Misterios del Amazonas,”  all glassy tinkles and bobbing splodges of keyboard, moves with the absurd-yet-effective underwater gait of a manatee. 

“Esoterik”, the second side, is less ethnodelic, more abstract.  Tracks by Vacuum Templi and Tacet Tacet Tacet recall the amorphous grey zones of industrial’s ambient-leaning outfits, such as Zoviet France.  Other artists intersect with recent online-underground styles like vaporwave, or that texturally splattery, event-crammed style of digital experimental composition associated with labels like PAN. Electro Summer Arcade’s “ラテックスキリスト” is beached yacht rock, the hull corroded and pocked with holes. Jealousy Party’s “Polymorphic stomp” describes itself perfectly:  Deleuze & Guattari’s body-without-organs trying to shake its floppy ‘n’ oozing stuff on a crowded dancefloor. As the track devolves further, imagine a musique concrète jam session involving actually sticky stuff - preserves, syrups, marmalade – as sound-sources. 

Recently there’s been a discernible uptick of interest in the Fourth World concept: from Optimo’s Miracle Steps (Music From the Fourth World 1983-2017) compilation, through labels such as Discrepant, to music-sharing blogs with a penchant for the “neo geo” Japanese style of Eighties exquisiteness that blurred the borders between ambient, new age and exotica (think Midori Takada).  Indeed “nat-geo 3.0” is another word Artetetra deploy on their bandcamp page, but less as a nod to Sakamoto’s neo-geo concept, they say, more as a play on National Geographic, the periodical that brought the aliens already on this planet into suburban homes and dentist waiting rooms across the West.

You could place Artetetra as the latest outcrop of a long, discontinuous tradition. Most recently, there’s been Sublime Frequencies and hypnagogic tape explorers like Spencer Clark, Sun Araw, and Lieven Martens Moana. Before that, the Nineties techno-travelogue school of Loop Guru and David Toop.  The Eighties, decade of the world music boom, teemed with tourism: Holger Czukay, Malcolm Mclaren, Aksak Maboul,  Byrne/Eno, Lizzy Mercier Descloux, to name just a handful. But even in the Seventies you had Joni Mitchell sampling a Burundi beat on Hissing’s “The Jungle Line,” ethno-tinged side-projects by progressive musicians like Steve Winwood, not forgetting Ginger Baker’s godawful Africa 70.  Artetetra acknowledge many of these predecessors but point to the original exotica of Les Baxter and Arthur Lyman as a deeper affinity. 

Exoticism – or to phrase it less problematically, an openness to sounds, instruments, and rhythms from outside Western pop and unpop traditions – seems to come in waves, linked most likely to lull phases when renewal through external influx seems necessary or alluring. You could easily critique these practices as a hipster version of globalization: an End of Geography to match an alleged End of History, in which xenomania joins forces with  retromania in a desperate ransacking drive to fill up our voids with the reinvigorating riches of  other cultures, other eras.  But in the disorienting new context of a world that’s furiously reterritorializing itself – I write as Le Pen and Macron face off to determine the future of Europe - the light-hearted cosmopolitanism and Other-directed curiosity that characterise Artetetra and their kindred spirits starts to seem not only valid, but valorous. 

Monday, July 17, 2017

Lo Five / Patterned Air Recordings

Lo Five

When It’s Time To Let Go

Patterned Air Recordings CD/DL

The Wire, April 2017

by Simon Reynolds

Perhaps the uncanny persistence of hauntology shouldn’t be that surprising.  A genre based around the stubbornness of memory, around that ontologically suspect and temporally elusive non-entity known as the ghost, wasn’t likely to shuffle punctually offstage once its time in the spotlight was up.  A dozen years after its emergence, hauntology’s themes and traits have long since settled into a stable repertoire (mind you, the same could be said about many genres covered in The Wire: improv, drone,  extreme metal...).  But original prime movers like Ghost Box, Mordant Music, and Moon Wiring Club still put out good, sometimes great records (eMMplekz’s last long-player was one of 2016’s very best ), while newer operatives like Robin the Fog’s Howlround project and the label A Year in the Country  find fresh angles on familiar fixations. 

From this second (or is it third?) wave of spectral audio action, Patterned Air Recordings might be the most alluring and intriguing of a busy bunch.  Barely a year old, the label is the creation of Matt Saunders, whose prior discography includes the 4AD-signed duo Magnétophone and solo alias Veil, and who currently records as The Assembled Minds.  As far as the music’s outer husk goes – its framing and wrapping – the signifiers that Patterned Air traffic in fall squarely within hauntology’s known terrain:  that  wired / wyrd mixture of homespun analogue electronics,  acoustic textures and invocations of English rural landscapes (with a tinge of pagan past). There’s also allusions to childhood and pedagogy (Cukoo’s Woodland Walk features a schoolteacher’s voice and Nature Studies titles like “Pine Cones” and “Hedgehog”). You’ll often also find a vein of Nineties technostalgia: Assembled Minds’s  Creaking Haze and Other Rave-Ghosts, the sporadic jungle-breakbeat flashbacks in RunningOnAir’s  superb self-titled debut.  

Another hallmark, which Patterned Air shares with fellow nu-skool imprint A Year in The Country, is a quaintly exquisite attention to design and packaging. The label’s four releases so far come in see-through pouches cutely fastened with a leather twist-tie (easy to lose, be warned) and into which are stuffed an array of brightly-coloured inserts, including manually ink-stamped cards and printed tracing-paper squares. 

So far, so not entirely unpredictable, then.  But the music itself is less easy to pin down, at its best wriggling loose of the H-zone nearly entirely.  Patterned Air’s latest – When It’s Time To Let Go, by Lo Five, a/k/a Neil Grant from the Wirral peninsula - is their most unusual.  The opening track “Infantile Progenitor” stirs up memoradelic flashbacks, certainly, but not to any of the standard coordinates (Seventies spooky children’s TV, Public Information Films, et al). Rather the glinting chord-chimes and gauzy keyboards teleport me to the middle Eighties – Prefab Sprout, The Blue Nile, Lloyd Cole. Those evocations may well be unintended, accidental side effects of the instruments and effects Grant is drawn to, but  the effect for me personally is potent: taking me back to the self I was then - awkward, ardent, unprotected and yet wide open, teetering on the brink of starting my life. 

Throughout When It’s Time To Let Go, the music is cloaked by a lambent ambience of blurry reverberance (again mid-80s redolent: specifically, “Driving Away From Home” by It’s Immaterial).  The sound is like a watercolour with a little too much water in it, capillary rivulets of paint mingling into each other.  Bright but muzzy, the smushed-into-each-other textures can sometimes feel alarmingly intimate and up-close, a glare that makes you want to shield your ear’s gaze.  Field recording sounds –unsourceable rustles and creaks, laughter, a stream rippling over stones - weave through the tone-palette in a low-key, unobtrusive way that adds to the un-clarity of the mix.  Often there’s a school music room feel:  instruments like wistful piccolo, woodblocky percussion, bell-sound twinkles, the plink of mallets against glockenspiels or xylophones, are juxtaposed with more technotronic vamps and pulses.  Walking a winning diagonal between variety and homogeneity -  different grooves, same sound - When It’s Time moves through the early-Nineties bleepy pump of “Sabre Contusion,” past the wavering-off-pitch ambient lull of “A Pivotal Moment,” into the clanking Cumbrian dubstep of “Death to Innovation” and peaking with “Almost”: Harold Budd plays an out-of-tune piano, with the sustain pedal pressed full down, from the bottom of a crevasse, turning each chord into a craggy overhang of echo.

Every Patterned Air plastic baggie includes a label statement about the record printed on a colourfully illustrated insert. Somewhere between a liner note, a record review and a press release, these are uncredited but obviously written by Saunders himself.  The framing is always evocative, always appropriate, but sometimes I wonder whether this move - common to hauntology as a whole - of establishing the terms on which a recording is heard and understood might not actually be holding back the music to some degree, or at least, overly containing it.  If, say, Creaking Haze and Other Rave-Ghosts had a totally different title and the tracks inside weren’t called things like “Summoning of the Rave”, would you actually think of Nineties techno-pagan vibes while listening?  It may well be the case that this mise en scene – Spiral Tribe meets The Wickerman- was what guided Saunders towards the strange sound he achieved on what remains the label’s best release so far: shrill, peaky synth-yammers edging ecstatically into dissonance.  Yet once it’s served its catalytic purpose, does retaining and  articulating the concept add surplus value for the listener, or does it actually confine and slightly diminish the alien-ness? 

The same goes for Lo Five. The Patterned Air text refers to sounds “suffused with the traces of people and places humming with life, or emptied of everything... human lives caught up in the passing of time, the passing of people and things... the passing of place”. Yet the music doesn’t feel especially elegiac: its emotional palette hews mostly to primary-colour, primary-school naiveté, suggestive of total immersion in NOW. If there’s nostalgia at work here, the yearning is for a time before the emotion or sensation of nostalgia even exists in the child’s consciousness.  What I’m wondering, then, is whether it really is “time to let go”. To shed not just hauntology’s specific (and slightly shopworn) set-and-setting, but also the wider tendency rampant amongst today’s conceptronica artists that impels them to over-determine the reception of their music. Time, once again, to let sounds be. 

Friday, July 7, 2017

Delia Gonzalez and Gavin Russom / Jackson and his Computer Band

"Progtronic Space-Funkers Blast Disco Ball Deep into Galaxy"
Delia Gonzalez and Gavin Russom, The Days of Mars
Jackson and his Computer Band, Smash

Village Voice, December 6, 2005

by Simon Reynolds

Performance art duo Delia Gonzalez and Gavin Russom created some people’s fave track of 2004 with their side project Black Leotard Front. A 15-minute odyssey of space funk, “Casual Friday” reconfigured the nightclub glitterball as a wondrous polyhedron-faceted planet. It also pointed to an underacknowledged interzone connecting prog and disco, based in the genres’ shared penchant for long instrumentals, flashy musicianship, and post-hippie utopianism. On their debut album, DG & GR continue their kosmisch quest to locate the missing link between Manuel Gottsching's E2: E4 and Sueño Latino’s “Sueño Latino.” But they’ve dropped the beat, leaving just the pulse. The sequenced flutter of “Rise” creates a paradoxical feeling of serene tension, “Relevee” braids arpeggiated synth lines into a gently writhing spire of sound, “13 Moons” wafts veil after veil of shimmering translucence, and the closing “Black Spring” is like tantric sex, minus the sex. Fabulous stuff, but make no mistake, DFA hip factor notwithstanding, this isn’t “the latest thing.” It’s actually a time-travel trip back to ’70s analog synth rock. The sheer expanse of The Days of Mars (four pieces in 50 minutes) recalls the album-side-long canvases daubed by such as Edgar Froese, Klaus Schulze, and Tim Blake. Russom, his beard blending indistinguishably into his long, lank locks, even resembles one of those Kraut-rockers who turned New Agey, like Deuter.

Frenchman Jackson Fourgeaud approaches the prog-disco zone from a different angle, tapping into the ’70s monsterbands’ proclivity for bombast, disjointed structures, and ornate arrangements. It’s not just the title of the opener, “Utopia,” that recalls Todd Rundgren, it’s the high vocal (beseeching “Have you really thought about utopia?”) and the production’s quality of “altitude” (what Graham Massey of progtronica outfit 808 State identified as the studio wizard’s hallmark). At times Smash resembles the step beyond Discovery that some of us hoped Daft Punk would make with Human After All. But truthfully the album ranges much further afield, connecting DAF’s industrial disko to ELO/10cc-style art-pop kitsch, and welding heavy rock’s juddering thunderbeats to house and trance’s rippling, ecstastic riffs. Sometimes it’s all too much (curse perhaps of this being a Computer Band and therefore prone to that digital temptation to nuance and layering, as opposed to Delia & Gavin’s analog-induced minimalism). But in the end, you gotta say yes to this excess. Yes please and merci beaucoup.